Monday, January 23, 2006

An open letter to the New York Times' ombudsman

January 22, 2006

Dear Mr. Calame,

I am writing to complain about the paper’s coverage of the Yankee Stadium issue and in particular about the op-ed piece by Andrew Zimbalist that ran today.

As I am sure you are aware, the Yankee Stadium proposal is a project that will require hundreds of millions of dollars of public input to come to fruition. As such, the project itself and the claims of its backers should be carefully scrutinized. Unfortunately, the Times has been mostly uninterested in the progress of this plan as it moves through the public review process and has failed to cast a skeptical eye on claims made by anyone from either side. Instead, it has been left to individuals like Mr. Zimbalist, a relatively famous and “sexy” economist to make pronouncements without rebuttal.

But there are numerous issues with this proposal that the Times should be looking into. For one, the alienation of the 22 acres of park land, a process which normally takes between 6 months and a year, took only three weeks in this case. In fact, the legislation was passed with almost no discussion on a day when hundreds of other bills were passed. The public was never consulted on this decision or advised of its impending passage. So when the politicians congratulated themselves for coming up with a plan that had no opposition it was simply because the public didn’t know, with the possible exception of a select group of pre-approved political supporters. It may interest the Times to know that the Borough President is now going through a similar process, working with a pre-selected group of supporters in drafting a Community Benefits Agreement.

Other issues include the fact that the proposal actually seems to result in a net loss for the city. Currently, the city makes a profit off the stadium rental agreement. According to information from the Parks Department’s public affairs office, between 2000 and 2004, the net revenue (not the gross) from the stadium lease, after deduction of maintenance and planning costs was $26.4 million. But under the proposed deal, the city would not receive any rent. The ERA report commissioned to provide economic rationale for the project indicates that over the next 30 years, the city would reap $96 million in taxes from the proposed project…which is not enough to cover the city’s $135 million investment to create new and replacement parks and demolish the existing stadium. Furthermore, according to information from the Parks Department’s own website, restoration costs for park space range between $500,000 and $1 million per acre. On this basis, it would only cost $22 million to renovate the existing park space in the Yankee Stadium neighborhood (and cost $4.5 million to develop the new park space on the waterfront, a figure from the ESDC press release concerning the new stadium). Thus, renovation of the existing park space would result in a potential cost savings of almost $110 million. Why these points have not been brought up by the Times is beyond me; it seems that this is exactly the kind of information that breeds informative discussion of a project as controversial as this one.

Then there is the issue with Mr. Zimbalist himself and his op-ed piece. Shortly after the Yankees proposed this project, the Times ran an editorial in the City Section of the Sunday Times praising the project, despite the fact that details had not yet come to light. It is odd then, that the Times would ask for (or accept) a piece supporting its own editorial position, which I believe is one of the functions of the Op-Ed page. If I could provide a journalist to take the countering view, would the times provide op-ed space for that person? And what’s worse is that in this piece, Mr. Zimbalist gets a number of his facts wrong or makes misleading points. Although he indicates that the state would be reimbursed for it’s $70 million investment with parking fees, this is not the case. He states that Yankee Stadium is not sound, but in 1998 Buildings Commissioner Gaston Silva indicated that the stadium should last another 75 years with proper maintenance. Zimbalist states that the city pays $10 million a year in maintenance on Yankee Stadium, but does not mention that the city currently makes a profit on the rental agreement, and that the city would not receive rent from the new facility. He notes that the Yankees will pay all cost overruns on the stadium, when they are already responsible for building the stadium. He also mentions that the net cost of the project will be lowered by the ability to sell of seats from the existing stadium as memorabilia. Ugh. If there was ever a point that doesn’t help sell an argument, it’s that one.

Furthermore, Mr. Zimbalist’s position has begun to swing away from his hard line against these types of developments. As you may recall, he accepted a commission evaluating Forest City Ratner’s proposed Atlantic Yards project, and not surprisingly, praised it for being different from other stadium developments and a boon to the city because of its composition and location. He now has a vested interest in supporting some of these projects, especially the ones in New York City. So while he has appeared as the dispassionate voice of reason in the past, he is clearly moving away from that position.

In closing, I could not be more disappointed in the Times’ coverage of this issue. While I do not necessarily expect the Times to support or validate my own view, I do expect the Times to take the time and effort to explore the issue. But there has been very little exploration of the issue since the time that the Yankees made their announcement and everyone unanimously pronounced the project as good. There are whole depths to this story that have not been adequately covered, and the city and the decision makers who read this paper are all the poorer for it.


David Gratt
Friends of Yankee Stadium

(click the title to read the Op-Ed at the Times' website.)


At 12:16 PM, Blogger * said...

This Op-Ed is full of lies: actually, the present stadium is a money-maker for the city; there are no engineering studies that say it's time to build a new stadium; most public spending will be of no direct benefit to the community, and a signifigant share will not come back to the state and city; most replacement fields will not be at ground level (they will be on top of garages); the ULURP package does not call for the new tennis center to be on the river; the fields and open space are not linked, and all will not be adjacent to the new stadium; and the plan does not call for a new Metro-North platform. The community is not opposed to a new or renovated stadium. We oppose the destruction of our parks and open space and the creation of thousands of additional parking spaces. Keep the stadium south of 161 Street!


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